Episode 12 – The Man in the Middle: A Solution Focused Feuilleton

Peter: “Well, two things actually. One has more to do with the business than the other. To start with, I would like to talk about the external contractors for the project. John thinks that I am too soft and informal with them. I don’t agree with him. I am as courteous to them as is necessary. You can imagine that these projects are very complex. It is customary to set eighty percent of the price up front and the rest as the project moves on. Experience tells me that contractors play with the pricing of the last twenty percent according to the complexity of the project. But it also depends on the way they are treated by us. They are businessmen too, and they know how to count. If they get the impression that we are milking them dry from the beginning, they will recuperate their losses during the last part of the project. Then it turns into a legal war that costs a lot of time and money. I want to discuss how I can avoid this during the course of this project. Second, Steve, I am tired of the argument I have with John. As colleagues we have to be able to deal with each other in a normal way instead of constantly avoiding each other. I am really fed up with that. If we don’t change something here, it will get worse in the short term. I don’t want to risk having my team members use our discord to hide their own responsibilities.”

Steve: “Perfect. What would you like to start with — the contractors or John?”

Peter: “It doesn’t really matter.”

Steve: “OK, then we will start with the contractors because the matter with John is a lot simpler.”

This is a tricky statement. Clearly Steve tries to de-dramatize the situation between Peter and John but he can’t possibly know if it will be as simple as he suggests. Yet it is a fine example of Steve’s linguistic cleverness. He sets the art of implication to work. Steve defines the cooperation with the contractors, with which Peter is familiar and has a lot of experience and expertise, as the most difficult. Peter’s relationship with his colleagues — something that is vague and unfamiliar to him — is defined as simpler. With this linguistic maneuver Steve suggests that Peter has the capacity to find a solution for both matters. After all, if Peter can find a solution for the “difficult” matters (that actually are the simplest for him) he will definitely be able to find solutions for the “simpler” matters.

Peter: “Steve, you are a born optimist, aren’t you, to call the matter with John simple.”

Peter: “Steve, you are a born optimist

Steve: “Yes, I am, but I didn’t say ‘simple’ — I said ‘simpler’. I didn’t say that it will be easy. Sometimes simple things are very complicated, until you find the solution, and then you could kick yourself — why haven’t I thought about that before? That is something that you as an engineer know much better than I do, Peter.”

Steve teaches Peter about the concept of simplicity. He also uses the opportunity to define Peter as an expert in simplicity. The average competent engineer will mostly interpret this as a compliment.

Steve: “OK, about those contractors. Describe firstly how you assess the possible problems with them.”

Peter makes a list of the things that could go wrong, including, among other things, loopholes in the contract, bad weather conditions, unreliable subcontractors, unforeseen environmental issues and accidents.

Steve: “Well, it’s clear that you know what you are talking about. What was most effective with the external contractors in the past?”

Peter: “For the least expected calamities, you can only prepare in general. That is covered by our crisis management team. It is their responsibility to deal with this kind of stuff. Our job in operations is to make sure that the projects proceed on time and on budget. Nowadays the cooperation with the contractors has become much stricter. In the past, I could make direct deals with the contractors’ bosses when they showed up in the yard. I remember, some years ago, during a crisis in the construction business, that I bargained unbelievable prices on the last twenty percent of the project. No written contracts there. We just needed a firm discussion and then a handshake. I don’t think that is possible any longer. At least I don’t see how I could do the same now. That brings me to my issue about the relationship with the contractors. How can I avoid trouble?”

Peter’s unclear answer shows that he falls back on the buyer position: he has a workable goal (optimal cooperation with the contractors) but no access to his resources (i.e. how to handle the negotiations during this project). This moving up and down on the flowchart during a conversation is very common. It’s just an indication that Peter needs some additional help on this issue.

Steve: “OK, Peter, times have changed. It hasn’t become easier. So, tell me again what worked best in the past. How did you avoid trouble in those days?”

Again, a little persistence comes in handy. Steve decides to test Peter’s position on the flowchart by asking the same question again. If Peter gives a more useful answer, that will move him down on the flowchart again. If no useful answer comes, Steve will have to adapt his intervention. Let’s see how it goes.

Peter: “Sometimes it helped to, in a manner of speaking, bribe the employees of the contractors by taking good care of them. Give them coffee in the morning, soup at noon, and a beer after the working day. Actually, I sort of cajoled them towards better performance by giving them compliments on their good work. Sometimes it just worked better to yell and threaten. Usually a cocktail of these methods was the most effective. And of course, stringent contracts are also a good thing, prefer- ably with big fines.”

Peter’s answer now shows that he has access to his resources again. He is back on the buyer position. Although phrased in a slightly cynical way (bribing, cajoling) he also shows that he understands the power of a good working relationship when he talks about giving compliments.  No need for Steve to adapt his intervention. He can go on with doing what works: asking solution-building questions.

Steve: “Good, what else would help in the upcoming project?”

This little question both implies that the things Peter just mentioned are useful tools for the coming project and invites Peter to do more of what works. This economical use of words again shows that less can be more.

Peter: “More of the same, I guess. But now things are more complex, especially for the dismantling. The contractor and my people will be working together closely. I have confidence in my own people, but given the degree of complexity, I really have to find the best contractors for this project. However, I’m afraid that if I put too much emphasis on the degree of complexity, the contractors will think twice. They might charge so much that we’ll definitely run over budget.”

(to be continued)

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‘The Man in the middle’ is an excerpt from the book ‘The Solution Tango’ (and ‘Solution Focused Coaching’ e-book) by Louis Cauffman. This book presents a new approach to conquering the numerous challenges, problems, and failures that managers encounter at work, many of which are people-related. An important lesson identified in the book is that a manager must act as both the leader who provides direction for a team or company and as the coach who enables others to make the most of their skills, enabling the individual and the organization to succeed. A seven-step framework to enhance problem-solving capabilities, examples and tips, and a survival kit for sinking managers will help managers improve their people skills and learn how to approach everyday issues from a positive perspective.

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